Practice Area Column
International Education Leadership

Caring for Staff During Unprecedented Times

Leaders are relying on communication, empathy, flexibility, and a little levity to keep staff healthy and motivated.
“Everyone is facing uncertainty, but people in international education are facing profound levels of uncertainty,” says one expert. Photo: Shutterstock
 
John Gallagher

While the COVID-19 outbreak has affected every professional field, international educators have experienced their own unique—and confounding—challenges. The situation represents an unprecedented test for senior international officers (SIOs) and other leaders, as the crisis brought new workplace issues and uncertainty. Taking steps to help ensure staff’s mental health is not simple or easy, but doing so can help staff stay healthy, motivated, and engaged in their work.

“For international educators, the degree of uncertainty is so much higher than for other educators,” says Allison Vaillancourt, PhD, vice president for organizational effectiveness at Segal, a consulting firm. “Everyone is facing uncertainty, but people in international education are facing profound levels of uncertainty.”

“[People] are dealing with the uncertainty of enrollment, they’re supporting students and their own kids, and they’re wondering if they will have a job,” says Vaillancourt, who has more than 25 years of experience as a human resources leader at higher education institutions. “All of this [creates] personal stress [along] with professional anxieties to deal with.”

“Everyone is facing uncertainty, but people in international education are facing profound levels of uncertainty.” —Allison Vaillancourt

While most of the attention has been on ensuring student safety during the pandemic, easing stress and anxiety for staff should also be a priority for leaders. Most managers are not mental health experts, but leaders can promote staff well-being using communication, empathy, and flexibility.

Acknowledge “Crisis Mode”

Recognizing just how profound the change has been for staff is the starting point. For international educators, dealing with the concerns of students on campus and abroad during the pandemic immediately collided with the abrupt shift to working from home.

“We were working to bring home students studying abroad, but also working [with] faculty and staff overseas,” says David Di Maria, EdD, associate vice provost for international education at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. “Then, we had to work with international students and scholars—do they return to their home country or stay in the United States? It felt for weeks on end that the staff was in crisis mode.”

Letting staff know that you are aware they may be experiencing increased stress in both their personal and professional lives opens the channels of communication for staff members to express challenges they are facing and ask for help. Some may need additional resources or assistance with the transition to working from home, while others may be experiencing new difficulties in parts of their work.

Overcommunicate 

Inevitably, the level of stress many people are experiencing takes a toll on their mental well-being and may create obstacles to maintaining a normal workflow.

To identify problems or to prevent new ones from arising, the most important thing managers can do is communicate. “Keep in touch,” recommends Joanna Regulska, PhD, vice provost and associate chancellor of global affairs at the University of California-Davis (UC-Davis). “Communicate, communicate, communicate.”

Colleen DelVecchio, an engagement consultant who works with universities, echoes the importance of this practice. “The best thing you can do as the leader is to continually overcommunicate to staff,” she says. “There’s nothing more that our staff needs than trust, compassion, stability, and hope. If we haven’t set them up beforehand, now is time to really overcommunicate things.”

“There’s nothing more that our staff needs than trust, compassion, stability, and hope.” —Colleen DelVecchio

In times of stress, this is especially important. “People are asking the same questions [they] asked 3 days ago,” she notes. “We’re not remembering things as much as we were because our brains are so overloaded.”

Transparency Matters

The quality of the messages is as important as the quantity. Thank yous and celebrations of work well done matter, says Barbara Kappler, PhD, assistant dean of international student and scholar services at the University of Minnesota (UM). She takes screenshots of compliments she gets about her office’s work and shares them with the staff.

Kappler readily acknowledges that uncertainty about the future, especially financial uncertainty, makes communication difficult. Still, she says, it is important to let staff know what she knows—and what she does not know.

“I tell people, ‘Here’s what it means for now, here’s what we know for now,’” she says. “I am really explicit that I know the same amount of information on this topic as [they] do.”

“We need to clearly communicate the challenges so that we are transparent about how decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be a decision made behind closed doors.” —David Di Maria

“Right now, transparency is the biggest gift you can give anyone,” says Megan Prettyman, MA, vice president for partner success at UniQuest, an international enrollment management firm, and formerly an SIO at the University of Findlay. “If you don’t know what the future holds, be honest about that.”

When it comes to financial questions, says Di Maria, it is especially important to be clear. “This next academic year is not what it was going to be,” he notes. “We need to clearly communicate the challenges so that we are transparent about how decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be a decision made behind closed doors.”

Be Positive—and Realistic

Managers may think it is best to exude optimism in spite of the challenges, but doing so can cross a line into what Matthew Beatty, PhD, has dubbed “toxic positivity.”

“Some [leaders] are demonstrating this happy-go-lucky outlook—stuff like, ‘It’s all going to be okay,’” says Beatty, director of international admissions and financial aid at Concordia College. “In reality, they are denying the negative emotions or level of anxiety that is building. Even if we’re not having a good day, we need to acknowledge it. Let’s not try to be a superhero during this time.”

“Some [leaders] are demonstrating this happy-go-lucky outlook...In reality, they are denying the negative emotions or level of anxiety that is building.” —Matthew Beatty

To create space for staff to acknowledge challenges and celebrate good work, leaders should consider adding new channels of communication as needed. With the help of her communications staff, Regulska has developed multiple channels to share information, including newsletters, weekly staff messages, and “Coffee with Joanna” sessions, where staff can ask her questions.

At UM, “our staff have been creative,” says Kappler. “They proposed a virtual 15-minute hallway conversation topic that anyone can jump into,” facilitating the informal office interactions that have vanished with telework.

Adding levity to certain meetings, where appropriate, can restore a sense of connectedness lost by the move out of the office. Introducing pets and children on video meetings is increasingly common, as are virtual happy hours.

“Our director of student recruitment leads all of our daily admission meeting with a 1980s rock video,” says Beatty. “The first 3 to 5 minutes are these old MTV music videos. It makes getting online at 8:30 in the morning more interesting.”

Allow Flexibility Where Needed

Flexibility—with work hours, levels of productivity, and low-priority tasks—should be the new normal, at least for now. Expecting all staff members to be online at 8:30 a.m. may not be realistic. Those dealing with young children are juggling their own work and childcare at the same time, and others may be facing different challenges in their new routine.

“I encourage everybody to be extremely flexible,” says Regulska. “Take a few hours during the day if you need to. The work is going to get done.”

That flexibility applies to performance standards as well. “Acknowledge that productivity is not going to be the same,” says Vaillancourt. Pretending otherwise will only add stress to staff.

“Not everything is going to get done perfectly,” agrees Regulska. “It’s going to be done to the best of our abilities under the circumstances.”

Moreover, not everything needs to be done immediately. “It’s important to define what is mission critical versus what is not,” says Di Maria. DelVecchio suggests breaking tasks down into smaller increments to make them easier for people to handle so they feel a sense of accomplishment.

“If you have concerns about people being trustworthy, then you have the wrong employees. The employers who were really kind will have loyalty, and the others will be abandoned as soon as employees can do it.” —Allison Vaillancourt

If team members do not have enough work to keep them occupied, leaders can encourage them to build professional skills. Kappler’s staff at UM has been getting training on meeting effectiveness. “As we are spending so much time in meetings and on Zoom, it is even more important that the meetings are more effective,” she says.

In addition to affecting their mental health, the way staff are treated now will influence how they view their jobs—and their organization’s leaders—when things return to some semblance of normal. Managers who fail to communicate, lack transparency, or micromanage by asking for daily logs and intrusive check-ins should rethink how they are treating their teams.

“If you have concerns about people being trustworthy, then you have the wrong employees,” says Vaillancourt. “The employers who were really kind will have loyalty, and the others will be abandoned as soon as employees can do it.”  •

About International Educator

International Educator is NAFSA’s flagship publication and has been published continually since 1990. As a record of the association and the field of international education, IE includes articles on a variety of topics, trends, and issues facing NAFSA members and their work. 

From in-depth features to interviews with thought leaders and columns tailored to NAFSA’s knowledge communities, IE provides must-read context and analysis to those working around the globe to advance international education and exchange.

About NAFSA

NAFSA: Association of International Educators is the world's largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. NAFSA's 10,000 members are located at more than 3,500 institutions worldwide, in over 150 countries.